Is Islam a Religion? Christian Seminary Debates Accusations of Islamophobia in the US

American Muslims at an anti-Islamophobia rally in New York. | (Photo: Reuters/Jessica Rinaldi)

Is Islam a religion? This question, and others perceived as Islamaphobic, were debated by several professors at Union Theological Seminary in New York City Wednesday, with the panelists seeking to encourage the audience to participate in meaningful inter-religious dialogue.

With the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) gaining power and territory in the Middle East, questions regarding Islam and the beliefs and traditions among Muslim sects have been asked repeatedly. Numerous academics have weighed in on the question of whether Islam is truly violent and an authentic religion; three professors, along with one activist, came together at Union Theological Seminary to examine the issue further.

"We can understand Islamophobia as being an imitation, created and recreated across time. It builds across time and space … iteration leads to transformation," argued Ermin Sinanovic, assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at the United States Naval Academy, who has extensively studied Islam and Muslim-Christian relations.

He continued, "It can seek to replicate past fears in order to facilitate exclusion, discrimination and outright persecution. What are the memes we often hear about Islam? Islam is a religion of violence, it is not a religion, all terrorists are Muslims."

Seeking to disprove the widespread belief that Islam is inherently violent, Sinanovic cited a report published by Europol, the European Union's version of Interpol: "Out of 1,230 terrorist events between 2009 and 2012, only four were carried out by Muslims in the EU territories."

In her opening remarks at the seminary Wednesday night, Jerusha T. Lamptey, author of Never Wholly Other: A Muslima Theology of Religious Pluralism, asked, "How do we respond to these accusations [by Islamaphobes]?"

She answered with the suggestion that people learn to dismantle the tropes that those speaking against Islam often cite. Lamptey argued that Islam was equated with acts of violence and terrorism after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and later its portrayal in the media.

While Lamptey did not attempt to deny that Muslims have carried out attacks in the name of Islam, she argued that the statistics were wrong and manipulated to characterize Islam in a negative light.

During a Q&A with evangelist Greg Laurie in September at Harvest Church in Irvine, California, Christian apologist Don Stewart asserted that it's a mistake to deny that terrorist groups, such as the Islamic State in the Middle East and other parts of the world, are rooted in the Islamic religion.

Stewart added that it's also wrong for world leaders, sush as U.S. Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, to declare that Islam is a "peaceful religion that's been hijacked, and that it's not Islam." He further argued that the Islamic State "is Islam from the very get go — how it started and how it continued."

Oklahoma Rep. John Bennett has publicly argued that Islam is indeed "not a religion" but a "social political system that uses a deity to advance its agenda of global conquest. That's exactly what ISIS is doing now, and people that follow Islam are and will do the same thing."

Bennett's words were cited by Sinanovic in his remarks as propaganda against Islam.

John J. Thatamanil, author of The Immanent Divine: God, Creation, and the Human Predicament, is dedicated to the idea of interreligious dialogue and encouraged those in the audience to have a dialogue surrounding the idea as to whether Islam is actually a religion. He validated the question itself and said that scholars must have courage to answer it properly — and must ask themselves the very same question.

"We must ask the question of definition — just what is a religion? Have traditions always been religions? The answers to these questions are by no means transparent or self-evident," Thatamanil said. "I want to join with the host of voices that state that the term 'religion' is of antique vintage and today's meaning is relatively modern, which seeks to separate the 'religious' from the secular."

The panel fielded questions from the audience gathered at Union Theological Seminary, continuing on the conversation that is by no means over. The panel discussion, "Is Islam a Religion? Islamophobia, Public Discourse," can be watched here.

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